Astronomy and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI):

Gerry HarpGerry Harp

Dr. Gerald Harp is working on projects to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and studies of the interstellar medium using radio astronomy imaging and power signal processing computers. The Allen Array (ATA) is a unique radio telescope in Northern California, simultaneously performing both SETI searches and make radio astronomy observations. The intern will work with ATA and its data products and will be responsible for novel observations and analysis of the results. These results contribute to novel research going on at the SETI Institute, including everything from array calibration to optimize ATA sensitivity to applications of new techniques for discovering alien signals using ultra-fast numerical processing.

Qualifications : The student should have basic knowledge of at least one programming language, and be eager to learn Linux to support data acquisition and analysis. At least one astronomy class will be helpful as well. This project is suitable for a student who enjoys working with computers and is interested in SETI, radio astronomy, and telescopes. This project is at SI.

Related links: About Dr. Gerald HarpSETI ResearchAllen Telescope Arrary


Peter JenniskensPeter Jenniskens

Dr. Peter Jenniskens performs airborne and ground-based observations of natural and artificial meteors, including meteor showers, fireballs and the reentry of spacecraft ( Recent projects included a ground-based meteoroid orbit survey to bring in focus the minor meteor showers in the sky and find their parent bodies ( This project is a surveillance of the night sky from three sites with video security cameras. The student will work with Dr. Jenniskens to run the network and analyze the meteor videos collected over the previous year, calculate the meteoroid's direction of motion and speed, and search for new meteor showers and associated parent comets. Suggested reading: "Meteor Showers and their Parent Comets" by Cambridge University Press.

Qualifications: This project is suitable for a student interested in astronomy and astrophysics, particularly those interested in gaining research experience in preparation for a post-graduate career in planetary astronomy. The project is located at SETI Institute. 

Planetary Geology and the Search for Life in the Solar System:


Cynthia PhillipsCynthia Phillips

Dr. Cynthia Phillips is a planetary geologist with a background in image processing. A student working with Dr. Phillips would be involved in a project on the planetary geology either of the icy satellites of the outer solar system, or of Mars. The focus of Dr. Phillips’ work is the study of ongoing geologic activity on other worlds of our solar system and the ties to current liquid water and potential astrobiology.

Outer solar system satellites are of astrobiological interest, since it is plausible that many of them harbor oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, has a surface covered with a layer about 100 km thick made up of a solid ice shell and a liquid ocean below. The surface is covered with cracks and ridges, and disrupted regions, and the few impact craters point to a surface that has been geologically active fairly recently (i.e. in the last tens of millions of years). It is not implausible, therefore, that such activity could continue to today. Europa’s surface was mapped in the 1990’s by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, and more recently was flown past by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2007, on its way to Jupiter. Similar images and maps were also taken of Io, Ganymede, and Callisto by both Galileo and New Horizons.

One potential project for a student working with Dr. Phillips will be to analyze images of outer solar system satellites taken by the Galileo, Cassini, and/or New Horizons spacecraft. The focus will be on active geologic processes such as change detection, volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io, and crater relaxation and tectonics on satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. A separate potential project is the study of active features on Mars using data from multiple missions. The student will learn how to use ISIS, a specialized planetary image processing program, as well as other software tools, and will primarily use a unix environment.

Qualifications: An interest and basic coursework in geology is recommended, though not required. Experience with unix systems, and with digital image manipulation programs such as Photoshop or Gimp, will also be useful. This project is suitable for a student with interests in computer modeling, imaging processing, and planetary geology. The project is at SI.


Adrian BrownAdrian Brown

Dr. Adrian Brown studies the geology and composition of the surface of Mars, using spacecraft imagery. The student project with Dr. Brown will involve looking at the polar regions of Mars, which are the most dynamic on the planet, changing nearly every day. This means that images provide information about the seasonal polar processes involving carbon dioxide and water ice, and their interaction together. 

This project will involve the student in using an existing computer model of the Martian global weather system. The student will be required to compare the model results in the polar regions with observations that have recently been uncovered by the CRISM instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Specifically, the student will compare cloud and surface ice predicted by the model with observed clouds and surface carbon dioxide and water ice. 

Qualifications: This project would suit someone interested in Mars who is a geology, computer science or physics major, interested in learning more about computer modeling of climate systems, and wanting to learn more about dynamic processes that are now shaping the Red Planet in the polar regions. The project is at SI. 


Franck MarchisFranck Marchis

Dr. Franck Marchis, PI at SETI Institute and researcher at UC Berkeley, is interested in studying and understanding the diversity of our solar system, from the population of small bodies in the vicinity of our planet (the near-Earth Asteroids) to the moons of Neptune. Using a large number of observational techniques, such as high angular resolution near-infrared imaging, and spectroscopy using adaptive optic systems on ground-based telescopes or networks of robotic telescopes, he has measured the brightness variations of these objects in visible light. With these techniques, Dr. Marchis has discovered various triple asteroid systems in the main belt population, studied the most energetic eruption on the surface of Io ever witnessed, and showed that the Trojan asteroids could be in fact captured Kuiper Belt objects. More recently, the advances in mid-IR and Far IR instruments (Spitzer Space Telescope, and soon Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) give the opportunity to better characterize the surfaces of these bodies, measuring size, albedo, thermal inertia, and composition.

In 1994, images of the asteroid (243) Ida captured by the Galileo spacecraft revealed the presence of its small satellite named Dactyl, unambiguously confirming the existence of binary asteroids. Thanks to the advent of high angular resolution imaging, radar asteroids, today about 200 multiple asteroid systems are known.

Formation scenarios for multiple asteroid systems include catastrophic collisions, fission via the YORP effect, and tidal disruption. Satellite orbital parameters, size and shape of the components, surface properties, porosity, and material densities are needed to refine and evaluate these formation scenarios. An important questions in the study of binary asteroids is:
- Are certain compositional classes more likely to form binary and multiple systems than other?

In collaboration with Dr. Josh Emery, assistant professor at University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the REU student will help processing and analyzing reflectance spectroscopy data taken over the past 3 years using the Lick 3m, IRTF-3m, SOAR-4.2m and Keck-10m telescopes. If telescope time is granted to our team at IRTF, s/he will conduct the observations remotely from the SETI Institute. The candidate will perform the data processing to extract these reflectance spectra, focusing essentially on new data collected in 2010-2011 with SOAR and IRTF. S/he will analyze them using already available tools developed by our group and our collaborators.

Qualifications: The student should have a moderate to high level of computer experience. Meticulous attention to detail is necessary, as are solid math skills through at least trigonometry. Some programming experience (particularly using IDL and Python) and familiarity or coursework in astronomy (particularly the Solar System, telescopes, and the electromagnetic spectrum) would be beneficial. This project is suitable for a student interested in astronomy, planetary science, ground-telescope observations and data processing and analysis. S/He will be located at SI.


Janice Bishop Lori Fenton

Janice Bishop and Lori Fenton

Dr. Lori Fenton’s research focuses on understanding dune formation and includes studying HiRISE images of Mars. Dr. Janice Bishop'os research involves characterizing the surface of Mars using hyperspectral visible/near-infrared (VNIR) images of Mars collected by the CRISM spectrometer on MRO . They are both interested in understanding the interaction of water with the Martian surface and the products of these water-rock interactions.

They are seeking an REU student for 2012 to study Martian dunes in the Olympia Undae region. This project will involve analysis of several CRISM and HiRISE images in an effort to characterize the mineralogy and texture of the dunes in relation to the surrounding region. The student will learn several image processing techniques, will learn how to identify different materials based on spectral features (e.g. basalt, ice, gypsum), and will learn how dunes form and evolve on Mars. This project is expected to contribute toward our understanding of the formation of the Olympia Undae region and how it relates to sedimentary and polar processes on Mars.

Qualifications: The ideal candidate would have at least one year each of chemistry, physics, and geology/ mineralogy. This project is suitable for a student interested in mineralogy, remote sensing or planetary geology. The project is located at SI.

Biochemistry, Geochemistry, and the Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth:

Oana MarcuOana Marcu

Dr. Oana Marcu’s research interests include molecular adaptations of cells to environmental stress, including organisms in extreme habitats on Earth, as analogs for Mars environments that could harbor life. Survival of life requires adaptation to desiccation, extreme temperatures and radiation, which limit the presence of life. Adaptation implies maintaining the structural and functional integrity of biomolecules (DNA, protein, lipids), which are otherwise damaged through oxidation.

This project will look at stress responses in prokaryotic microbial communities from the Atacama desert halites, and in the eukaryotic alga Volvox carteri. The question is whether common cellular pathways of adaptation to environmental stress may have been recruited in evolution and are important for the onset of multicellularity. The student will be involved in molecular biology work to characterize stress-response genes, using assays for quantifying gene expression and oxidative damage. A data analysis component will include X-ray fluorescence imaging of elements that are linked to specific cell fates during environmental stress.

Qualifications: Prior coursework in molecular biology and experience with laboratory work is required, preferably cloning/molecular biology/genetics. The project is suitable for a student interested in astrobiology, molecular biology with a strong evolutionary biology component, and it includes laboratory work. The laboratory is at ARC.


Richard QuinnRichard Quinn

The objective of this REU project is to investigate the space environment viability of organics. The selected student will perform laboratory simulations of the Space Environment Viability of Organics (SEVO) experiment to aid in the analysis and interpretation of the flight data returned from the O/OREOS (Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses) nanosatellite mission.

The O/OREOS has been developed as the first flight mission of the NASA Astrobiology Small-Payloads Program. O/OREOS is currently returning data from a high-inclination Earth orbit ( One of the two payload instruments on the satellite is used to perform the SEVO experiment, an investigation of organic molecule stability in space. In a SEVO experiment, different reaction cells or "microenvironments" are used to examine the stability, modification, and degradation of organic molecules in model environments of interplanetary/interstellar space, airless bodies, and planetary surfaces. The SEVO payload includes a UV/VIS/NIR spectrometer to monitor the chemical consequences of solar UV/VIS light and space ionizing radiation on different classes of organic molecules in concert with their reaction cell microenvironments.

The SEVO samples are reaction-cell-supported environments containing organic molecules, with UV-visible spectroscopic characterization. SEVO exposes four classes of organic molecule to the space environment: biomolecules, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, biomarkers, and photoactivated organics, along with a set of reference specimens. The reaction cell environments include: space vacuum (representative of interstellar medium conditions and star-forming regions), activated minerals (representative of airless bodies, e.g. Moon and near-Earth objects), CO2 atmosphere (representative of martian conditions) and brine-relevant salts (simulating outer solar system moons, parent bodies of meteorites, martian brines, and prebiotic chemistry).

Qualifications: Two semesters of general chemistry with lab are required. This project is suitable for a student interested in astrobiology, chemistry and engineering, and will use laboratory facilities at ARC.


Friedemann Freund Robert Dahlgren

Friedemann Freund and Robert Dahlgren

Dr. Friedemann Freund and Bob Dahlgren study oxidation processes in the Earth’s crust, at the ground-to-air interface and at the rock-to-water interface. The oxidizing agents are electronic charge carriers that lie dormant in essentially all crustal rocks. However, they “wake up” when stresses are applied. The charge carriers flow out of the stressed rock volume into adjacent unstressed rocks. They traverse meters of rock in the lab and kilometers out in the field. They are defect electrons or positive holes, e.g. an electronic state associated with O– in a matrix of O2–. When these charge carriers cross a rock–water interface, they oxidize H2O to H2O2. These O– should be able to carry out many more oxidation reactions, including those that partially oxidize organics or affect the chemisorption of noble gases in the soil such as radioactive radon. This project is of broad scientific interest spanning the range from astrobiology (oxidation of the early Earth and evolution of early Life) to present-day geophysical phenomena linked to impending seismic activity.

The project with Dr. Freund will primarily involve laboratory experiments, investigating mechanical, electromagnetic, and electrostatic effects observed in various rocks under stress.

Qualifications: Background in physics, chemistry and geology. Knowledge of LabVIEW as a data acquisition program would be useful and knowledge of Matlab or Mathematica would be a plus. This project is suitable for a physics, geology or engineering student broadly interested in early Earth, early life, geophysics and planetary geology. Laboratory facilities at SI and ARC will be used.